While it is true that both mothers and fathers may seek and be awarded physical custody of their child, and may agree to almost any custody arrangement out-of-court, when the issue of awarding primary physical custody is before a family court judge, preference is usually given to the parent who is the child’s "primary caretaker."

The "Primary Caretaker" Standard

In custody cases, most states’ family courts allow a preference for the parent who can demonstrate that he or she was a child’s primary caretaker during the course of marriage, or assumed that role in general if the parents are unmarried. The "primary caretaker" factor became important as psychologists began to stress the importance of the bond between a child and his or her primary caretaker. This emotional bond is said to be important to the child’s successful passage through his or her developmental stages, and psychologists strongly encourage the continuation of the "primary caretaker"-child relationship, as being vital to the child’s psychological stability.

How is the "Primary Caretaker" Decision Made?

When determining which parent has been the primary caretaker of a child for purposes of a custody decision, family courts focus on direct care-taking responsibilities, such as:

  • Bathing, grooming, and dressing;
  • Meal planning and preparation;
  • Purchasing clothes and laundry responsibilities;
  • Health care arrangements;
  • Fostering participation in extracurricular activities;
  • Teaching of reading, writing, and math skills; helping with homework;
  • Conferencing with teachers; attending open houses; and
  • Planning and participating with leisure activities with the child

Depending on the state where the custody determination is being made, other factors may be considered as important when determining primary caretaker status.  Even such things as exposure to second-hand smoke and volunteerism in the child’s school have been considered in a primary caretaker analysis. 

If the question "who is the primary caretaker" is not easily answered, as when both parents have equally shared parenting responsibilities, courts will generally look once again to the "child’s best interest" standard in determining custody.

SOURCE: FindLaw